In two separate interviews Chris Cleave talks about Incendiary (2006), in which a distraught woman writes a letter to bin Laden after her family are killed by a massive suicide bomb; and Little Bee (2008) which "delivers a timely challenge to reinvigorate our notions of civilized decency."
A Conversation with Chris Cleave about Little Bee
Why did you choose to open the novel with the quote from Life in
the United Kingdom: A Journey to Citizenship? What does the typo in
this quote mean for you?
The quote is "Britain is proud of its tradition of providing a safe
haven for people fleeting [sic] persecution and conflict." I took it
from Life in the United Kingdom, which is the text book given to
immigrants preparing for their citizenship test in the UK. It covers
British history, government and etiquette. It offers the excellent
advice "If you spill a stranger's drink by accident, it is good manners
(and prudent) to offer to buy another." Less gloriously, though, its
summary of British history is rather selective, and the work as a whole
is riddled with inaccuracies and typographical errors. My belief is that
if a refugee is prepared to walk away from a regime that has imprisoned
and tortured her, flee to the UK, apply for asylum, and commit to memory
the contents of the text book we make compulsory for her, then for our
part we should at least be prepared to have that text book
professionally copy-edited. The typo in that opening quotation is a nice
example of a bureaucracy that is pretending to care, but not pretending
What challenges did you encounter using two narrators? How did using
two voices allow you to tell the story more thoroughly? What were some
difficulties you faced writing from a female perspective? Sarah and
Little Bee are each strong, extraordinary women; how did you show their
strength through their very different styles of narration?
I knew this was a compelling story but after agonizing over which
character would be the best one to narrate it, I realized that the
strongest perspective would actually be a dual one. This is a story of
two worlds: the developed and the developing, and of the mutual
incomprehension that sometimes dooms them to antagonism. So by taking
one woman from each side of the divide, and investing each with a
compulsion to understand the other, I was able to let the story unpack
itself in the mind of the reader. This was a huge breakthrough for me.
One shouldn't underestimate the role of the reader in this novel. I
wanted to write a story that was never made fully explicit; which relied
on the reader's interpretation of the characters' dialogue. Once you
trust the reader with the story, the writing is really fun to do.
It's not without its technical challenges, of course. As a man it
requires concentration to write from a female perspective, but I see
that as an advantage. If I'm consciously writing someone so different
from myself, then I'm protected from the trap of lazily using my own
voice to animate the character. It forces me to listen, to think, and to
write more precisely. Using two narrators is difficult though. To
differentiate their vocabulary, grammar and idioms is quite
straightforward if you make an effort to understand and inhabit the
characters, but the hard thing is how you handle the overlaps and the
gaps in the characters' knowledge. When both narrators have witnessed an
event, which one will you choose to recount it? Or will you let both of
them tell it, and play with their different perspectives on what they've
seen? When you use your narrators in series, you need to work to make it
not feel like a TV show with bad links between segments. But when you
use them in parallel, you need to take pains to avoid the text feeling
Add into the mix the fact that the story is not told in linear time
the first half of the book is working backwards into history, while the
second half works forwards into the future and you start to see the
complexity of writing like this. The trick is to make it read smoothly.
It's scary how many drafts you go through till you achieve something
that reads simply. There are days when you love the work and days when
you wish you had almost any other job.
Lawrence tells Little Bee,
"If you understood how serious your
situation is, I don't think you'd smile." To which she replies, "If I
could not smile, I think my situation would be even more serious" (p.
186). How were you able to find a balance between humor and gravity in a
novel with such serious themes?
I was able to do it because I have good readers. I can have my
characters explore some fairly dark humor for example, listing methods
for a young Nigerian girl to kill herself at a garden party hosted by
the Queen of England while trusting my readers to understand that I am
not making light of a serious theme. Rather, I am offering up a dark
theme to the light, so that it may be examined. This is the only way I
know to tell a serious story about current events without it becoming a
lecture. And when I interviewed refugees and asylum seekers while
researching this novel, I found that some of them use humor in this way
too. These are people with very painful stories to tell. They have
learned that in order to survive, they must get people in positions of
power to listen to and believe their stories. And they have further
learned that such people are more likely to listen if they make their
stories entertaining, by showing the joy of their lives as well as the
tragedy. They are the masters at telling their stories - because if they
don't get that balance right, they die. That's motivation, right there.
As far as storytelling goes, they're playing in the major leagues.
Novelists are rank amateurs by comparison.
How do you think American readers may approach the story differently
from British readers? What might be lost on them? What about the story
Nothing's going to be lost on American readers. This is the story of an
African girl coming to the Western world and struggling to be accepted.
She encounters racism, hostility and betrayal, but she also finds good
people and friendship, and she becomes a strong person - in some ways
stronger than both the society she came from and the one she finds
herself in. Americans are going to understand this story quicker than a
lot of British people will. You have an extraordinary history of
immigrants coming to America either forcibly or voluntarily - and
striving to find their place within it. Little Bee's personal struggle
is an allegory of the struggle of every people that has ever hoped for a
better life and known that it has something to contribute. This is a
story that is written deep in your national identity, and my own country
would be better off if we took a leaf out of your book.
Little Bee often talks about how she would have to explain things to
"the girls back home." How can looking at our culture through the eyes
of a foreigner help clarify things?
The "girls back home" are the novel's Greek chorus they are a foil in
whose imagined reaction the cultural dissonance experienced by Little
Bee can be made explicit. It's a good device because it feels more
natural than having Little Bee go around talking straight to camera and
saying "Wow, I'm freaked out by this. And this. And this." Much better
for us to have Little Bee's thoughts after she has understood the
situation and can explain it to the "girls back home" from a position of
superior knowledge. This allows us to appreciate the cultural gulf,
whilst allowing the narrator to be comic rather than tragic.
So, Little Bee is the foreigner and the "girls back home" are her
device. I look at human culture the same way science fiction does, but I
look at it through the wrong end of the telescope. In sci-fi an ordinary
protagonist discovers an extraordinary world, and the genre is exciting
because of the emotional dissonance. But my thing is contemporary
realism, so I'm always showing the ordinary world to what is effectively
an extraterrestrial protagonist. It's fun to do. Through this lens the
most mundane events Little Bee drinking a cup of tea in Sarah's
kitchen acquire an immense significance and a certain beauty. Also,
the things in our culture that are sad and ignoble the fact, for
example, that we can enjoy our freedom while imprisoning and deporting
those who ask to share in it appear in sharp focus through the eyes of
an alien narrator. We have become accustomed to viewing our own
immorality in soft focus, but the alien narrator has not yet acquired
this cultural immunity. She sees us as we can no longer see ourselves.
How did Andrew help to characterize those around him? Both Sarah and
Andrew are morally flawed. How do you expect readers to react to
Andrew's actions on the Nigerian beach? How might they react to Sarah's
affair with Lawrence?
I don't have a preconception of how readers will react to that scene. My
aim was to create a scene that was perfectly morally ambiguous, and in
which the reader might quite justifiably side with either Andrew or
Sarah. Andrew isn't such a bad guy. What he fails to do on the beach is
what most people would probably fail to do, myself included. Once Andrew
realizes he's made the wrong choice, it's too late for him because the
moment has passed and he is condemned to spend the rest of his days
regretting that he failed life's test. Sarah is lucky, really. She's not
inherently more moral than her husband, but just at that one critical
moment she happened to do the right thing. This means that she can look
back on her actions on the beach without too much guilt or shame. She
can move on with the rest of her life while Andrew must enter a terminal
decline. It's ironic because Sarah's infidelity is the reason the couple
find themselves on the beach in the first place. And yet her
premeditated affair goes unpunished by life, while Andrew's momentary
failure of courage dooms him forever. Life is savagely unfair. It
ignores our deep-seated convictions and places a disproportionate
emphasis on the decisions we make in split seconds.
Is Charlie/Batman based on your own children? What do you hope his
presence in the novel will help to elucidate for the reader? How might
we benefit from adopting the worldview of a child who sees everything in
terms of "goodys" and "baddys"?
Charlie is based on our oldest boy, who was four years old when I wrote
the book. For six months he would only answer to "Batman". For a whole
week I just listened to him and took dictation, which certainly beat
going out to work for a living. Charlie's "goodies / baddies" worldview
is endearing but of course it's naive and he's not in the book as an
example of an ideal morality. Charlie is in the novel for two reasons.
First because he's funny and loveable he gives the novel an emotional
centre; a reason for the adult protagonists to not simply walk away from
the situation and disperse. Second, Charlie is a study in the early
formation of identity. Little Bee is a novel about where our
individuality lies which layers of identity are us, and which are mere
camouflage. So it's a deliberate choice to use the metaphor of a child
who is engaging in his first experiments with identity in Charlie's
case by taking on the persona of a superhero.
In a video on your website you mention that the book is, in some way,
about "the horror of being alive in a world where atrocities happen."
Are there particular human rights issues you'd like to take this
opportunity to call attention to? In the face of such monumental tragedy
as is exposed in Little Bee, how can one person make a
Well, that's a big question. I'm more qualified to answer technical
questions about my writing but I'll try to answer this, so long as we
both agree that my answer has no more weight than anyone else's. I guess
I hardly need call anyone's attention to the reality that there is more
horror than happiness in the world. A billion people are hungry,
hundreds of conflicts and wars are ongoing, tens of millions suffer from
eradicable diseases, there is always at least one genocide underway
somewhere on the planet, more people still live under dictatorships or
oppressive regimes than live in free societies, and arms dealers still
make more money than farmers. Of course individuals can make a
difference, but the fact is that evil has had the whip hand in this
world ever since Cain. That doesn't mean we should stop trying to be
good, but we shouldn't kid ourselves either. Evil is not going to be
vanquished. Our job is to resist it, and to plant the seeds of further
resistance so that goodness never entirely vanishes from the universe.
There are degrees of resistance. It starts when you give a dollar to a
homeless person and it escalates to the point where people give their
lives, as Ghandi did, or Martin Luther King Jr. One person can make a
difference by traveling as far along that continuum as they feel able.
In doing research for the book, did you come across any facts or
stories of particular importance to you that did not make it into the
final draft? Would you share some with us?
Yes, here's the true story that inspired me to write
"Little Bee". In
2001 an Angolan man called Manuel Bravo fled to England and claimed
asylum on the grounds that he and his family would be persecuted and
killed if they were returned to Angola. He lived in a state of
uncertainty for four years pending a decision on his application. Then,
without warning, in September 2005 Manuel Bravo and his 13-year-old son
were seized in a dawn raid and interned at an Immigration Removal Centre
in southern England. They were told that they would be forcibly deported
to Angola the next morning. That night, Manuel Bravo took his own life
by hanging himself in a stairwell. His son was awoken in his cell and
told the news. What had happened was that Manuel Bravo, aware of a rule
under which unaccompanied minors cannot be deported from the UK, had
taken his own life in order to save the life of his son. His last words
to his child were: "Be brave. Work hard. Do well at school."
What can we expect next from you? Are you working on anything new
Yes, I'm working very hard. 2008 was all about publishing and promoting
"Little Bee" (or "The Other Hand" as it's called elsewhere), so 2009 is
all about getting back to writing. I'm halfway through a third novel,
which is about war. I'm also writing a comic novel and a crime
screenplay, so it's going to be a big year for work.
Chris Cleave explains why he wrote Incendiary
In March 2004 I was still dazed
from the twin shocks of the 11th September 2001 attack and the perverse
Anglo-American response to it. Sickened by the images of horrors done in my name
in Iraq and elsewhere, frightened by the shameless Orwellian manipulation of the
public debate, I found myself mute before a growing global catastrophe. So I did
what I do best, which was to pretend none of it was happening. I was writing a
novel set in 1980s Brooklyn, and the more I disappeared into its escapist world,
the less I had to think about the one in which I was living.
My son Louis was six months old and I was falling in love with him. I never
believed it was possible to love someone so infinitely. I became terrified that
he was growing up in a world descending into cruelty and barbarism. A lot of new
parents have told me they feel the same fear. To cope, I tried to block out the
insane events taking place in the world outside our flat. But they kept getting
through my defences. It wasn't the big, obvious brutalities that got to me. To
learn that 30 people had died in a car bomb, for example, provoked no strong
reaction. Instead it was the small, domestic ephemera of the growing tragedy
that touched me. To see a pile of mangled bodies left me unmoved, but seeing a
photo of a child's sandal abandoned on the floor of a bombed-out building
reduced me to tears. Such images made me understand that all of the people
destroyed and traumatised by the jihadists and by our armies were loved by their
own families as much as I loved my son.
On the 11th March 2004, my son stood up on his own for the first time and
jihadists killed 191 people in Madrid. It went on and on like that all that
week. Each day something beautiful happened in my flat while something terrible
happened outside. It was this constant dissonance that began to affect me and
stopped me from being able to feel good about my day-to-day life. I found I
could no longer stay silent.
I wrote the first draft of Incendiary in six weeks. I hardly slept, and
when I did I had nightmares which were indistinguishable from the next day's
news. In April the Abu Grahib torture scandal broke, and in May Abu Musab al-Zarqawi
released the first beheading tape, of Nick Berg. I felt while I was writing that
our own minds were the battleground on which the world struggle was being
fought. I felt I would be psychologically broken unless I could write characters
who not only lived though the horror into which our world is plunging, but who
had depths of love and humour that were equal to it. My story is an examination
of love: what the narrator of Incendiary feels for her son is what I feel
for mine. My question is whether love is strong enough to defeat horror, or
whether in the end the best we can hope for is some miserable truce. I never
found the answer, which is why it was a difficult and frightening book to write.
The battle lines drawn in Incendiarybetween East and West, between East
End and West End, between men and women, between faithfulness and infidelity,
between mothers and career women, between working class and middle classhave no
real existence. They are only lines we allow to be drawn in our own minds.
Whenever we as loving humans allow these lines to be established there will be
violence and, as the narrator of Incendiary believes, all the violence in
the world is connected. That is why it is possible to write the whole global
narrative into her intimate tragedy.
I think the book is truthful because it isn't political. It looks directly at
our deepest fears, and places the responsibility for them in our own hands. It
doesn't blame our leaders or their shadowy antagonists for the world's current
descent. This tragedy is ours: we made it, we own it, and we can stop it. We
propagate it when we allow our politicians to act cynically in our name, and
when we allow them to own the language of the debate.
Incendiary is an attempt to win back the language and start a more honest
debate. I would like a lot of people to read it, then I want to listen to what
they say. I think if I keep listening then I can keep writing stories that
people find relevant and useful.
Chris Cleave, London, December 2004
Chris's novel published in the UK on July 7th 2005 - the same day that four
bombs exploded in London. In this letter Chris responds to the London
attacks and the subsequent commentary about his book:
Osama London burned WITH INCREDIBLE NOISE AND FURY is what the Monument [to
the Great Fire of London] has written on it. People thought it was the end
of the world. But the Londoners got up the next day and the world hadn't
ended so they rebuilt the city in 3 years stronger and taller. Even Hitler
couldn't finish us though he set the whole of the East End on fire. Bethnal
Green was like hell my grandma said. Just one endless sea of flames. But we
got through it. We built on the rubble. We built tower blocks and the NHS
and we kept on coming like zombies. You've hurt London Osama but you haven't
finished it you never will. I am London Osama I am the whole world. Murder me
with bombs you poor lonely sod I will only build myself again and stronger. I am
a woman built on the wreckage of myself."
Raging and defiant, this is how the narrator of my novel 'Incendiary'
addresses Osama bin Laden in the aftermath of a fictitious terrorist attack
on London that kills her husband and her son. Yesterday, on Thursday 7th
July - by sorrowful coincidence the day my book was published - its
fictional world became murderous, brutal reality. I don't think my book is
unusually prescient - we all knew this was coming but none of my months of
imagining the horror prepared me for the reality of it. Yesterday the voice
of my narrator was joined by real voices: the angry, brave, compassionate
voices of Londoners responding to an act of savagery in our city.
I have been up all night listening to those voices. On TV, on the radio, out
in the street with my friends and neighbours. I've been listening to
London's reaction and comparing it to the reaction I have been imagining for
Well, the truth is braver than fiction. In this terrible time something
extraordinary is becoming apparent: the determination of Londoners to reply
to the faceless murderers with dignity, with calm strength, and with a
collective refusal to show fear that is the most inspiring thing I have ever
witnessed. The emergency services were superb. The Met was exemplary. The
response of ordinary Londoners was inspiring, simple and rather subtle. No
hysterics, no hyperbole, no glorification of heroes: just simple statements
A woman emerging from the Tube - with such an accumulation of soot around
her nose and mouth that it was obvious she had narrowly escaped suffocation
- looking into the camera, smiling, and saying very calmly that there had
been a lot of smoke and that the evacuation had been quite orderly. A man on
talk radio at 4 a.m. who apologised, without undue theatre, for having
simply walked away in shock from the bus blast rather than offering comfort
to the wounded. Our neighbour knocking to see if we needed a hand looking
after our child.
These revealing details of London's psyche went beyond not what I could
imagine, but what I could hope for. We have not lost the force that got us
through the great plague and the great fire and the Blitz. I never dared
hope that Londoners could still be so fiercely noble.
Along with millions of others yesterday, the only thing I could think of
when the news started to come in was whether my loved ones were safe.
Cellphone problems meant it was three hours before I found out that my wife,
who had been travelling to work on the Tube, was okay. During those three
uncertain hours I went through an accelerated procession of all the
emotional states that I had rehearsed through the voice of Incendiary's
narrator. I felt her raw shock, her anger, her defiance, and her lust for
revenge. Disturbingly, I didn't yet feel her compassion. Despite one
thousand hours of writing a narrator with sufficient love to escape terror's
cycle of violence and retribution, in those early moments all I wanted was
vengeance against the murderers.
I became a liberal again the moment I saw my wife's call flash up on my
cellphone. I wonder how long that transformation would have taken, had
things turned out differently. Honestly today, I once again believe that
terrorism is not a fire we can fight with fire. Predictably, I believe that
if we are to invoke the rhetoric of good and evil, then we'd better make
sure we really act good. But then, my family survived yesterday intact. What
can I say to those whose families didn't?
The answer, of course, is nothing. I can only try to imagine the distress
they're going through today, but something yesterday taught me was the
difference between imagination and experience. In the weeks and months to
come I will be listening, along with the rest of the world, to the families
of the dead. It is their response that must inform our reaction as a city
and as a society. Those families will be drawn from the 91 nationalities,
practising dozens of religions and speaking over 300 languages, that make up
this extraordinary city that I love. The families of the dead will be
London, and London's voice will be theirs.
-- Chris Cleave, London.
8th July 2005.